South Carolina (3-5) opened play at the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic on Sunday with a 78-71 victory over previously unbeaten Saint Mary's (9-1) behind four Gamecocks scoring in double-figures, including a team high 16 from junior guard Tyrone Johnson and a career high 12 points from sophomore forward Laimonas Chatkevicius.
The Gamecocks shot a stellar 58.3 percent (28-48) from the field in the win, including a 4-of-7 (57.1%) mark from 3-point range. The shooting percentage for the Gamecocks was the highest since Carolina hit 57.7 percent (30-52) in a win vs. Arkansas on Jan. 26, 2013. South Carolina held the Gaels to 40.7 percent (22-54) from the floor in the game.
South Carolina held a one-point lead after freshman forward Demetrius Henry blocked a shot by SMC's Stephen Holt, and responded with a fast break lay-up at the opposite end, for a 7-6 Gamecock advantage with 14 minutes remaining in the first half.
Carolina played solid defense in the early part of the contest, holding Saint Mary's to just 4-of-17 from the field through the first 11 minutes.
The Gamecocks led 16-8 near the nine-minute mark before the Gaels responded with a quick 6-0 run fueled by a 3, and another 3-point play from Holt. The Gamecocks responded with a 7-0 run of their own behind a 3 and fast break lay-in from Johnson through the seven-minute mark to lead 23-14 with six minutes to play.
South Carolina extended its lead to as many as 12 during the opening half, but the Gaels began to close the gap with a pair of 3s on back-to-back possessions from James Walker III with just over 90 seconds to play in the frame. Freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell hit a jumper during the stretch, but Holt scored his 10th point of the half on a lay-in at the buzzer to put the score at 33-27 Gamecocks at the half.
South Carolina played with stellar energy and stifling defense through the first half. The Gaels hit just 9-of-31 (29.0%) during the opening frame, far below their season average of 48 percent, with the Gamecocks connecting on 12-of-22 (54.5%), led by Johnson's 10 points, in the first half. Henry was big on the boards for Carolina during the opening half, pulling down a season high eight rebounds in just the opening 20 minutes of play.
Saint Mary's scored three quick points out of the break on a lay-in and free throw from junior forward Brad Waldow. The Gamecocks would score on consecutive possessions, a dunk from Chatkevicius and jumper from freshman guard Duane Notice, but Waldow would added two more buckets at the opposite end and the score stood at 37-33 Carolina through the 18-minute mark.
South Carolina would score on the next three possessions, with the Gaels' Jordan Giusti providing a 3 during the stretch. Carolina's lead was 43-37 at the under-16 minute media timeout.
The Gaels would answer, as a lay-in from Walker tied the contest at 45 with 12:49 to play. The teams traded baskets through the next possessions and the contest was tied at 50 at the under-12 minute media timeout of the half.
Chatkevicius connected for dunks on consecutive possessions out of the timeout and Carolina took a four-point lead at 54-50, 10:36 to play.
Back and forth play continued, but consecutive baskets from Johnson near the nine-minute mark pushed Carolina's lead to 59-54. The score stayed close, before a 3-point play from Notice with just under six on the clock pushed Carolina's lead to 66-60.
Thornwell scored back-to-back lay-ups with the second pushing Carolina's lead to 70-62 with 4:16 to play in the contest. The Gaels responded with a 3 from Kerry Carter with just under four minutes to play and the score stood at the final media timeout of the set.
Giusti hit one of two free throws for the Gaels out of the timeout, but SMC collected an offensive rebound on the miss, and Levesque scored a lay-in on the possession to put the score at 70-68.
Williams extended Carolina's lead to 73-68 on his second made 3 of the contest with 2:12 showing on the clock. The teams would once again trade baskets, but Chatkevicius would score two of his 12 points, and Thornwell would hit two from the line with under 30 seconds remaining to seal the win for the Gamecocks.
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for Carolina. Thornwell would add 13 points in the win, and Notice posted a season high 11.
South Carolina will play the winner of the Boise State versus Hawaii contest on Monday at 9 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on ESPN2.